Responding to: Firsthand Reflections on Charlottesville
August 24, 2017
The day-to-day business of academic life involves a good deal of compromise. Teach to educate students, not to publicize your research agenda; seek consensus on curricular matters, hiring decisions, departmental rules; reconcile conflicting perspectives in your writing—these are the hallmarks of a praiseworthy, and suitably un-showy, academic life.
And yet there are times in which it is utterly wrong to compromise. That isn’t easy for academics to hear, and it puts an unusual pressure on many who work in theology and religious studies—for isn’t one part of our job to reduce conflict, extol diversity, and promote mutual understanding? Well, it certainly is. But it is crucial that we do not misread the moment in which we find ourselves, and vital that we do not take refuge in (otherwise laudable) notions of tolerance. We need to draw inspiration, instead, from those who had the wisdom to think against the grain, and the strength to pair conviction with bold, direct action. Think of Martin Luther challenging the established Church; Sojourner Truth resisting slavery and sexism; Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth fighting Nazism; Bree Newsome scaling a flagpole in South Carolina. Think of those who resisted neo-Nazism in Charlottesville on August 11 and August 12: the students who encircled Jefferson’s statue, the ministers who lined up to protest the “Unite the Right” rally, and, yes, the Antifa who protected those ministers from physical harm.
This is where we are: Each and every one of us has to pick sides. I can accept the ideology of white supremacism, directly or by way of acquiescence—or I can actively oppose it. I can think and act in ways that give succor to new kind of fascism, which draws support from the highest office in the land while being nourished by toxic media, ginned-up resentments, and a grievous maldistribution of wealth—or I can actively oppose it. And, because the struggle ahead of us might well be long, once I have picked sides, I need to begin cultivating an impatience for a future in which far-right extremism is no longer a current threat, but a mournful memory. This is not a time for equivocation, nor is it a time for self-exculpatory prognostication (e.g., resting content with the belief that demographic change will make far-right extremism moot). Martin Luther King, Jr.’s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is as relevant now as it was in 1963: this is a time for a “legitimate and unavoidable impatience,” fired by faiths of various kinds, religious and otherwise.
To be sure, impatience is rarely considered a Christian virtue. The word can suggest a refusal to bear inconvenience, a tetchy inability to wait. At first sight, it might even appear proximate to the dangerous malady of “toxic masculinity”: a notable driver of contemporary far-right politics. The impatience I want to commend, however, has nothing to do with character flaws and white male fragility. At issue here, at least for Christians, is a clear-sighted realization of the Kingdom of God, a zealous seizing of the future that Jesus and the Spirit have set loose. If Christians are to play some part in moving towards God’s future—even as we know that this future is God’s, and a matter of grace—we must confront those who seek to combine North American racism with the horrors of European fascism. The weird, malignant, but potent brew that is the “alt-right” must be met with fierce, and sometimes intemperate, resistance; it must be met, and outdone, by communities and individuals who know that the theological is not just personal, but political.
Is that it? Obviously not. Granted our pursuit of justice, we need to work out how we got to this point, and what new (or rediscovered) forms of thought are needed to help us find our way. Our impatience must be supported by a patient working through of a range of thorny ethical and theological issues.
Three seem particularly deserving of scholarly attention:
- As we accept, as we must, that much North American Christianity has failed to address white supremacism—hardly a new thought, but one that always bears repeating—we must also realize that North American Christians have often taken the lead in promoting social justice. Is it time, perhaps, to rethink the very idea of church? Ought we to imagine Christian community in new terms: not simply “post-denominationally,” not just in terms of the (tired) binaries of “evangelical” or “mainstream,” “traditionalist” or “liberal,” but in terms of a chaotic coalition of spirit-inspired actors, fired with a hunger for God’s future? To put it riskily: might the religious left have the potential to become a pentecostal event?
- As we accept, as we must, that Christians are called to engage in nonviolent action—action that recalls a savior who does not wield the sword, and which honors a God who responds to imperial murder with the grace of resurrection—we must also realize that many who resist fascism, and do so effectively, do not share this particular calling. I mentioned the significance of the Antifa during the events of August 12. Without their efforts, there might have been more bloodshed on that day. I cannot in good conscience endorse their (limited) use of defensive violence, but I would have a worse conscience were I to condemn it. What does that mean? Is it now time to commit to a painful paradox, wherein a commitment to nonviolence is partnered with a tolerance of some forms of violent political resistance? How broad is our embrace of a plurality of strategies for countering neo-fascism?
- As we accept, as we must, that scholarship that goes under the heading of “systematic theology” has been a vehicle for rendering Christian faith intelligible, and for exploring the meaning of God, creation, salvation, and the like—we must also accept that some of the best intellectual work of the last 50 years has been done by liberation theologians, eager to contest established conventions and patterns of thought. What does that mean? Ought we to erase the boundary that often separates liberation and systematic theology, and to write and think in ways that render systematic theology inherently liberative, and liberative theology more powerfully systematic?
The impatience of struggle and the patience to confront new questions—this, I believe, should animate our response to the events of August 11 and 12.
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